Finding The Perfectly Imperfect Church

I sat there waiting for the Executive Pastor to show up. He was twenty-five minutes late. I had been asked to interview for the newly created Campus Pastor position at this well known and highly effective Orange County megachurch.

The lobby was bustling and the waiting easy. There were plenty flat-screens on the walls pumping out the latest worship gigs, a Keurig station offering dark bold Sumatran, free wifi, leather couches and interior decor that coagulated the best of surf hipster, New York chic and rustic farm house. Stunning. Unfortunately, the few people hustling by did not seem to notice.

As I sat there in opulent comfort, my mind flashed back to a church meeting I had attended in Thailand a decade earlier. The coffee was instant, the floor seating hard and the only decor a faded picture of a brown eyed Jesus hanging on the cross. The spirit of peace in that place was tangible. It was as if no one was trying. I mean that in the best of lights.

The executive pastor arrived with lavish apologies for his tardiness. A radio interview had gone long. He was likable, focused and obviously loved Jesus. Under his arm was a copy of Fast Company magazine. He told me to wait another five minutes and that his assistant would come out and collect me for the meeting. I was offered another coffee. For me, the interview had already ended. I knew we were headed to the same destination, but on different paths.

If there is one thing I have learned in twenty-plus years of leading in churches is that you can buy church. Check that. You can buy or create a church experience for your community that will offer them the temptation to think that this church has it all together. It’s also a great growth strategy, as it allows people to check the box of being part of something that is effective and meaningful.

As a pastor of a small local church and having just come out of 10 years ministering in a mega church setting, I feel the pressure to create a “Fast Church”, one with all the modern bells and whistles, singing the latest anthems and offering clean efficient systems to organize people around legitimate spiritual causes.

The problem that I face, is that if I went after that, it would not be long before I was the wizard behind the curtain offering up an illusion of spiritual perfection that would not only be soul killing for me, but also for those I lead.

It’s one thing to talk about messy churches and lives from the pulpit, but it’s quite another to actually allow that messiness to be part of your church staff, volunteer base or even organizational systems.
What I often see are churches that preach and sing about brokenness and authenticity, but then go out and try to create a church image and culture that presents modern ideals of perfectionism. Here is what I mean. Would you allow a seriously obese person  to be your door greeters? Can we allow someone to stay on staff who is not reaching their targets and goals for one reason or another believing that sometimes God cares more about your staff as individuals then what they can produce. Can someone be on the worship team that occasionally sings flat and do heads roll if the sound or PowerPoint is not run with Spielberg perfection?

I believe that when we present authenticity and imperfection from the stage but don’t allow that to play itself out in the ebb and flow of our church matrix’s and social systems, we are actually creating a culture that never let’s people truly be free. In fact it heaps unseen heavy burdens on their heads.

No, I am not advocating a sloppy church. Being an A Type control junkie, it pains me to be patient as God grows those I lead. I see every perceived misstep, off note and occasional unedited promotional piece. The thing is that deep down, my desire to present the perfect church has more to do with how I want people to perceive me then trying to offer them a savior who brought a casual perfection, but never demanded it in return.

Living In A Selfie-Stick World

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Little did I know when I walked into Marshalls last month that I would do something I promised myself never to do. The problem was, the conditions were perfect. We were one day away from a month long trip to Europe to visit my brother, I had a little extra trip cash in my pocket for those last minutes extras before you leave, a travel pillow, pair of cheap sunglasses, a paperback fiction novel.

Moments from my escape and trying to seamlessly run the Marshall’s impulse shopping line gauntlet I saw it. The selfie stick. I tried to look away, but like a bee to a marigold I was sucked in with visions of full frame family selfies at the Eifel tower, Big Ben and Five Guys Burgers Edinburgh. Before I knew it, I had it out of the box and fitted to my life control device, the iphone 5c. It felt good in my hand and the semi-automatic shutter button made me feel like a social media Clint Eastwood asking Mark Zuckerberg if he felt “Lucky”.

Like it or not, we are living in a Selfie Stick world. I’m not sure that things have changed very much. Most people’s favorite topic has always been themselves. The only difference now is that it’s much easier to get a front row seat to others moments of self-obsession as well as have a platform for our own.

Few things scream, “Do you love me?” like the selfie.

Self obsession in all forms comes down to an issue of worth and where we are extracting that worth from. The scriptures tell us that in the end, perilous times will come as people begin to draw their worth from self-love. The reason self love is treacherous is that it is impossible to harvest love from yourself. Love is product of God and all pure love, even virtuous love of self must be generated and purified in understanding God’s great love of you.

“But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty. 2 For people will be lovers of self” 2 Tim 3:1

When we become lovers of self, we are once again trying to be like God. Love of self tells God that we don’t need his eternal and limitless love and mines a fool’s gold of momentary adrenaline and dopamine hits we can garner of our own efforts.

The fact is this. God has set His vast affection upon you. He calls you to plumb the depths of that love and to drink deeply for it is only by drowning in the love of God that we can really begin to breath.

Does this mean that all selfies are bad and a bi-product of egotism? Not at all. I believe God himself delights in the exposition of our daily lives. It’s just that He wants to be a part of every image you capture, standing there beside you saying, this is my son or daughter in whom I love and am delighted in.

1 John 3:1 See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are. The reason why the world does not know us is that it did not know him.

Peace Beyond Understanding

Phil. 4:6-7 Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.
7 And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Everyday is a battle for peace. On days when things are going my way, when there is a breakthrough at work or my wife and kids are happy and content, I have peace. On other days, for no apparent reason, I wake up with the world on my shoulders. Peace is nowhere to be found.
This is the kind of peace that is based on control and fear. It is peace based on our own understanding. The problem with this kind of peace is that it is elusive. It comes and goes like the tide. All it takes is one phone call or perhaps a look at your waistline and you are unsettled.
When our wife or partner is upset, we fear that we will lose them and we lose our peace. When we don’t hit our number at work we fear that we will be fired and so we begin a mad dash to get things under control. We strive to make things right in our own power. We continue doing this no matter what the cost until we have regained our temporary peace back.
People’s perceptions of us is one of the most cruel robbers of our peace. I counsel with so many people that seem like a dim phantom of who they are called to be due to fear of what others thinks. This is why some people who are true extroverts become painfully shy, forgoing their true identity because of fear. They have decided they will control other people’s perceptions by blending in, by becoming who they think people want them to be.
I know that I have fallen back into this type of peace when my mind becomes tense and I start reaching for things I can control. My usual plan of attack is to furiously clean the house or organize the bills or garage. The odd thing is that these usually have nothing to do with my loss of ballast, but still, they give me a sense of temporary control.
The peace that Jesus offers us is not based in any kind of control. Instead, Jesus says let me have control and I will give you a peace beyond understanding. This is the kind of peace that is content in all situations and allows others to live freely without the desire to control anything or anyone. I would argue that we are never called in God’s word to control anything other then ourselves. Instead we are to steward faithfully, but never control.
The word of God tells us that we are to derive no peace or satisfaction of mind from the world. Rather, our peace is to be found only in things that are unchangeable and eternal: God Himself. (2 Thess 3:16)
The only way to come to this type of peace is to begin a journey into God’s love. Remember that perfect love cast out all fear (1 John 4:18). We control and lose our peace for only one reason. That reason is fear. Whenever you are stressed, it is based in a fear. If you don’t believe me, the next time you find yourself stressed, stop and ask why. I am sure that you will find it has to do with some-thing you are afraid to lose. This could be another’s love of you or your temporary membership in the club of beautiful and respected people.
When we begin to accept that we are truly loved, and that God works all things together for our good and benefit (Romans 8:28) then we will begin to finally live in true peace. It is this type of peace that weather storms. It is this type of peace that lets you act our your life in love as opposed to fear. Acting out of this center is what finally allows our lives to become authentic.

The Value of Chosen Worth

Romans 8:38 For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons,[m] neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

So I have continued to have this discussion about God’s love with a host of close friends. What comes up most is the question of how our worth is then determined in the view of God. What makes us valuable to God.

The answer to that is “Choice”. While I am not loved by God because of any thing or innate value of my own, I am of unimaginable and immeasurable worth due to God’s Choice.

The fact that God chose (from within love) to create me in His image is one of many reasons that I have for finding a favorable view of myself in Him. Another is the fact that God sent His son to die for me. That reason alone, the fact that Jesus was willing to die for me and call me His chosen is where I find my worth.

The key here is that this worth is based on nothing I have done. All of it comes from the impetus of God’s choice. Because of this, we as believers are eternally anchored in His favor.

The distinction that has made the most impact on my way of living is when I based my understanding of God’s favor on a “because” which found its anchor in my merit, the feeling of God either being pleased with me in the present moment was tied to how I was performing. On days my walk was closer to my understanding of God’s requirement for holy living, the happier and more fully accepted I felt. If another day I did some act of unkindness, I would feel removed from God’s pleasure and acceptance until I made the relationship right with Him.

God’s favor of me is not tied to my feeble understanding or ability to walk in closer accordance to His words (the bible) calling. No matter how I perform, I am always accepted and approved of by God. Romans 8’s assurance of our freedom from any condemnation affirms this.

Let’s get back to the human relational out workings of this. When we decide to marry a person, it is not because we love them. I know that we think it is, but it is really just a choice. I married my wife not because I love her, but because she was the best choice for me. That choice was based on all kinds of “because”. I married her “because” she is a beautiful and amazing individual full of talent and kindness. This though is not why I love her. I love her for no reason other then God has called me to love her regardless. My love for her then is displayed in the “choice” I made to covenant with her. This is why we say “for better or for worse” when we get married. Love is based on no thing. Her performance in the marriage or my possible waning emotional state has nothing to do with how I love her. I love her no matter what.

This is why it is impossible to fall out of love. Instead, one person in the relationship has decided they no longer chose to be in relationship with their partner because of a “thing” or lack of a desired “thing”. What is really happening is that the person if falling out of affection with the other person. They are no longer being affected in the way they wish, and a state of emotional distance develops. Many divorce for this reason. Be assured that this is not love. Love conquers all these obstacles (1 Cor: 13). That is why it will be only one of three (Faith, Hope and Love) that remain. As we know, the greatest of these is love.

Let’s again look at God. The good news is this. You can never leave God’s love. If you are in Christ, you are the within the center of His great love. You can rest. There is nothing you can do that will separate you from that love. Besides that, you are also eternally favored due to His decision of you.